So when we did end up having a baby, in the summer of 2015, we brought her home to a bookshelf already half-stocked with books. In that first year of EJ’s life, I remember often reading to her from one of my favorites, “A Baobab Is Big,” by Jacqui Taylor. Jenny had bought it in Cape Town, South Africa. As I read, I pointed out things to our daughter — the tree that looked as if it had been planted upside down, the unfamiliar animals, the way the words rhymed — but I never said a word about the color of the main character’s skin. The fact that this little boy’s arms were darker than hers, darker than mine — why would I ever draw attention to that?
It wasn’t until 3½ years later, when Jenny signed us up for a class at the North Portland library called “Teaching Preschoolers About Race,” that I began to realize that children’s books were a way into a conversation that our family had not been having. And it wasn’t just that we weren’t talking to our 3-year-old about differences in race and ethnicity. My wife and I had not been talking about it, either, at least not directly and not often, and this was despite our being a multiracial family. I am white, and my wife is a first-generation Filipina American. Our daughters (we have two now), are what EJ, our eldest, calls “half-peach, half Filipino.”
Wanting to explore the idea further, I reached out to Kirby McCurtis, who had been one of the teachers of that course in Portland and is now vice president/president-elect of the Association for Library Service to Children. “Just go for it,” McCurtis said. “You’re going to feel awkward, but if you don’t do it, then it’s going to be worse. Your kid’s going to be one of those kids in fifth grade who doesn’t know that the Underground Railroad wasn’t really a railroad.”
McCurtis, a regional manager for the Multnomah County Library system, recommended starting to talk to babies as young as 2 or 3 months old about differences in skin color as you read board books. “People get really nervous about othering people,” said McCurtis, who is black. She recommended pointing out everyone you see in a book — not just the children of color. That way, she said, “no one is othered.”
We had done no such thing when EJ was a baby. Sure, since taking McCurtis’s course, we had been diligent about seeking out more diverse characters and authors for EJ and her 1-year-old sister, Juni, and yet how many opportunities to teach them more directly about race had we missed? How could we make sure we didn’t miss any more? To dig into these questions, I decided to talk to some experts in the anti-racism field.
McCurtis’s idea of starting the work early was echoed by Katie Ishizuka and Ramón Stephens, co-founders of the Conscious Kid, an education, research and policy organization dedicated to reducing bias and promoting positive identity development in youth. “At age 1, children are already able to distinguish skin color, and so it’s important to be intentional about exposing babies to books that feature a wide variety of skin tones, races and classes,” said Ishizuka, who is Japanese. In addition to narrating and asking your baby questions about skin color, she said parents should also be “affirming and stating that all skin tones are beautiful.”
By age 3, kids are using race to reason about people’s behaviors and to choose playgroups, Ishizuka said. This is the age, she said, when you can begin to talk to kids about racism and discrimination in terms of fairness. “It’s a conversation that kids this age can really understand.” So you might start by reading your 3-year-old a book like Aslan and Kelly Tudor’s “Young Water Protectors,” which was written by a 10-year-old member of the Lipan Apache Tribe and tells the story of companies building pipelines that have leaked oil into the drinking water on native people’s lands. You could ask your child whether it was fair or unfair that people did this, and also celebrate the bravery of the kids who stood up to them.
However such a conversation might go, just remember not to shame your child for asking questions. Toddlers are naturally curious, and if yours asks a question like, “Why is that person’s skin so brown?” celebrate their curiosity and, perhaps, look into a book like “All The Colors We Are” by Katie Kissinger, which takes a scientific yet simple approach to explain that all humans are different shades of brown, depending on how much melanin we have in our skin.
For 4- and 5-year-olds, Ishizuka and Stephens recommended asking kids more in-depth questions about how race operates in the books they’re reading, such as, “Who is doing what in the story and why? Who is the focus and who are background characters? Who is missing entirely?” According to Stephens, who is black, the biggest mistake adults make when talking to kids about race is sanitizing the issue: “Kids are definitely absorbing these issues, and they’re more than intellectually capable of understanding them.”
I also reached out to a number of parents I know to get their perspectives on using children’s books to teach about race.
Dione Heater of Las Vegas said that she and her husband, who are both black, “always try to choose books with protagonists that look like" their 7-year-old daughter. They like Vashti Harrison’s “Little Leaders: Bold Women in Black History,” which features the stories of black heroes such as Harriet Tubman and Mae Jemison. Heater also thinks it’s important to read books that have black protagonists without addressing their race at all.
Ishizuka cited Derrick Barnes as an author who centers his books on black males and black boys, “which is not seen very often.” In books such as “The King of Kindergarten,” Barnes celebrates everyday experiences and joy.
Sarah Gartman of Cleveland Heights, Ohio, remembered a time when she took her adopted daughter, who is black, to the doctor’s office, and another white woman started touching her daughter’s hair without asking. “She had this look in her eye like she knew she was getting away with something,” Gartman said. “I didn’t have the words then to tell her that this was not okay.” She recommended “Don’t Touch My Hair!” by Sharee Miller as “a beautiful book that can be used passive-aggressively with family.”
Hassan Rutherford of Fenton, Mich., who said he grew up not knowing he was biracial, sees books as a means to start a conversation. But engaging in direct dialogue is ultimately more important than reading from books, he said. He read “Let’s Talk About Race” by Julius Lester to all three of his daughters when they were little. When, last year, another high school student called his oldest daughter the n-word, he shared with her about the first time the same thing happened to him. “Don’t ever try to shelter the child from the experience itself, no matter how painful,” he said.
According to statistics compiled by the Cooperative Children’s Book Center at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, people of color are slowly gaining more representation each year, and yet children’s books are still dominated by white characters. In 2018, 50 percent of the books published featured predominantly white characters; 27 percent were mainly animal characters, 10 percent African/African American, 7 percent Asian Pacific Islander/Asian Pacific American, 5 percent Latinx, and 1 percent American Indians/First Nations. “When all your child is seeing is animals talking and white people, what are they going to think?” said Jen Fry, the owner and chief executive of Jen Fry Talks, a social justice firm that empowers those within athletics through an anti-racist lens. “If I’m a person of color, I don’t see myself. But also, I’m going to think that that’s the only thing that is normal, and that anything different is not normal.”
Which is why having diverse representation in children’s books is so important. And yet, “You gotta walk the talk,” said Kathleen Caliento, chief learning and design officer for the Chicago-based Academy Group, which promotes leadership in diverse communities, and a Haitian American mother of a mixed-race daughter. Books aren’t — and shouldn’t be — the only way parents teach kids about race. “It’s hard for a parent of any race to talk about racism and how they themselves are being inclusive if there’s no diversity in that child’s life.”
Stephens said: “This work is about unpacking yourself. It’s about having to confront ugly questions about your privilege, which you may have gotten at the expense of some marginalized group.”
In light of all of this, I am learning to look inward and outward. I have a long way to go. I am looking at the books I am reading to our girls and pointing out differences and similarities in skin color as well as the simple fact of what the characters are up to. I am looking at the diversity among our friend community around the world, and the lack of diversity in my immediate neighborhood. I am also looking at my family and knowing that, like the dynamic books we are committed to putting on our children’s bookshelves, it’s not just our similarities, it’s our differences — and our ability to share them — that make us beautiful.
For more anti-racism book recommendations, check out this list compiled by the Conscious Kid and American Indians in Children’s Literature.
Jason Basa Nemec is a freelance writer with a PhD in English and comparative literature. You can follow him on Instagram @jasonbasanemec.